Nature Publishing Group’s open access mega journal, Scientific Reports, is “playing with fire” by trialling a scheme to allow authors to pay for fast-tracked peer reviewing, according to critics.
The warning comes from one of the 150 Scientific Reports editors who have publicly pledged to resign if the journal permanently adopts a system whereby authors can pay $750 (£502) for a guaranteed editorial decision within three weeks.
A month-long trial of the scheme, involving 40 papers, ended on 20 April. Peer review was organised by the external Rubriq peer review service, which paid referees from its existing pool a reported $100 for each review. Final editorial decisions were taken by professional editors at Scientific Reports, rather than any of the 2,500 academic editors who typically handle the nearly 2,000 manuscripts the journal receives each month.
Announcing the experiment in a March blog posting, Nandita Quaderi, publishing director for open research at Nature Publishing Group/Palgrave Macmillan, called the move a response to author frustration with the length of peer review. One editorial board member, Mark Maslin, professor of geography at University College London, publicly resigned almost immediately. He told Times Higher Education that he objected to well-funded labs being able to jump the publication queue and to paying only a select group of reviewers – who were not necessarily the best reviewers for a particular paper.
In addition, about 30 editorial board members wrote an open letter expressing “grave concern” about the creation of a “two-tier” system, the selection and expertise of fast-track reviewers and the risk that paying fast-track reviewers might make it even harder to recruit standard-track reviewers. Despite Dr Quaderi’s reassurances, in Nature’s Communities blog, about standards, members of the group announced that they would resign unless the experiment was abandoned. Their resignation letter has been signed by about 150 academic editors and endorsed by a further 400 scientists.
The Scientific Reports move is not unprecedented; an open letter written by scholars expressing similar concerns was sent in 2011 to seven journals offering fast-track reviewing. One of the signatories, Alex Holcombe, now an associate professor of psychology at the University of Sydney, worried that, whatever their intentions, paid fast-track reviewers could be subject to “reciprocity bias”: the “very human tendency to do a good turn for those who do something good for us”.
Arne Traulsen, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany, one of the editors who has pledged to resign if the scheme is adopted, said that paying reviewers could also incentivise them to review as much as possible, compromising on quality.
“This is playing with fire. Of course, well-funded labs have more opportunities to produce good science, but when it comes to dissemination, we should all line up in the same queue,” he said.
Jim Woodgett, director of research at Toronto’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, a supporter of the editors, said that labs able to afford fast-track review could gain a citation advantage by establishing precedence for findings ahead of rivals. He added: “Scientific Reports is a higher end journal and if it makes this a standard option, so will others.”
Dr Quaderi said that it would take a “number of weeks” to evaluate the trial, in discussion with editorial board members, reviewers and authors. Conversations would also address wider potential improvements to the peer review system”, including ways to “credit and incentivise reviewers”.